Winter is coming and your bees know it
I missed the summer solstice this year; I wasn’t paying attention and it slipped right on by. The summer solstice is important because it signals the end of bee season, just as the winter solstice signals the beginning. “The end of bee season?” you say. “But it’s just getting started!”
Here’s the thing: In temperate North America, the bee colony is at its smallest in late November and December. After the winter solstice, it gradually starts to build. The queen lays more eggs, there is more activity in the nursery, slowly the population increases. By the end of June most colonies are as strong as they are likely to get. Basically, the six months from January through June are months of increase, followed by the months of July through December which are months of decrease.
Sure there are variations and fluctuations depending on local climate, weather patterns, and individual colonies, but the trend is six months of increase and six months of decrease. I read recently that the response to photoperiod (increase or decrease of daylight) is much less in honey bees than in other insects. But regardless of how it works, you can see the yearly pattern in your colonies.
Up through June, beekeeping is as easy as breathing. In most cases, the rate of growth in your hive is greater than the growth of most predators and parasites. You wonder, “What’s all the fuss about mites?” You don’t see them anywhere. Are beetles and moths really a problem? You wonder what’s so hard about raising queens, catching swarms, or making honey. Like a rising market, everything looks rosy. The whole beekeeping thing is a piece of cake.
By the beginning of July things start to change. Much of the continent is headed toward a nectar dearth. Almost imperceptibly the ratio of problems to bees shifts. Swarms virtually cease. The swarms that are cast are usually small or weak. Just as the poem says, “A swarm in July is not worth a fly.” Splits take longer to build up. It’s a little harder to raise good queens. Honey production slows to a crawl. Even flowers that are in bloom may have less nectar because rainfall has dropped and temperatures climbed.
New problems arise. Your bees spend all their energy fanning. Robbing honey bees appear out of nowhere. Marauding yellowjackets and hornets case your hives looking for a meal. Your sweet little honey bees suddenly become skittish and would rather you stay away. Your neighbors complain about bees in their pool and hummingbird feeders.
Like yellowjackets and wasps, mite populations continue to grow, even while your honey bee populations are dropping. Suddenly, it seems like there is a handful of mites for every bee. Weaker hives may be overcome with beetles. By August workers are throwing out the drones in a last ditch effort to prepare for the coming winter. Foraging continues as long as there is something to collect, but it is harder, consumes more energy, and takes more time.
The solstice is not like a switch. Bees are not one way on the 21st and a different way on the 22nd, but the change is sure to come. The seasoned beekeeper knows this intuitively, but a new beekeeper needs to be aware that change is in the wind. The key is to be ready and to handle each situation as it arises. Remember: beekeeping doesn’t take much time, but timing is everything.